02 November 2008

Good and Evil

The poet W.B. Yeats wrote Ideas of Good and Evil, a volume of prose essays, more than a century ago.

"At Stratford-on-Avon," was among these essays. It aimed at portraying Shakespeare's "untroubled sympathy for men as they are, as apart from all they do and seem."

An intriguing portion of that essay concerns the character of Henry V, not as "Prince Hal," foil for Falstaff in the plays named after Hal's father. But Henry V as he appears in the play named for himself, the play whence many of us derive our understanding of the battle of Agincourt.

This King, Yeats tells us, "has the gross vices, the coarse nerves, of one who is to rule among violent people, and he is so little 'too friendly' to his friends that he bundles them out the door when their time is over. He is as remorseless and as undistinguished as some natural force, and the finest thing in his play is the way his old companions fall out of it broken-hearted or on their way to the gallows."

The St. Crispin's Day speech is deliciously ironic. A man who could coldly send his old drinking buddies to the gallows could promise the rank-and-file of this battle, "he today that sheds his blood with me/shall be my brother."

This was a prophecy that could only have inspired those who didn't know their King. And the speech inspires today only because we manage to forget that everything won at Agincourt was lost again within a generation. Shakespeare's original audience was surely aware of that.

There have always been those who have missed the irony, and the story makes great cinema without it. Indeed, the contemporary scholar Harold Bloom writes of the two famous movies of this play -- Olivier's and Branagh's -- as "patriotic romps, replete with exuberant bombast."

I don't like the title of Yeats' book, since I dislike profoundly the idea of reviewing literary works in order to pick out the writer's (or the characters') ideas of good and evil. Still, Yeats gives a deep and impressive reading.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.